By Jayson Jacoby
Fire creeping through the winter-browned grass along an irrigation ditch or a fence is a symbol of spring as reliable around here as the buttercup and the wobbly calf.
The fire engine spewing water on the flames, not so much.
But this year, the combination of an abnormally dry March and temperatures rising into the 60s and low 70s during the past week has created burning conditions more typical of early June than early April.
"It is dry," said Jason Simmons, fire management officer for the BLM's Vale District. "We've seen a trend over the past few years in Malheur County and even in southern Baker County."
The unusually high fire danger was illustrated Tuesday when sunshine and wind kindled embers from a ditch-burn the day before near Phillips Lake.
Landowner Glen Marshall ignited the fire, and when he checked it later the blaze appeared to be out.
But once an ember got into dry grass on Tuesday, the flames spread quickly, said Willy Crippen, fire management officer for the Forest Service's Burnt-Powder Fire Zone.
The fire, which covered about 28?acres, didn't threaten any structures.
But Crippen said the blaze might well have spread over 100 acres or so except the flames reached a fire scar from a blaze that happened last July.
"(Tuesday's fire) burned right into the area of last year's fire and that slowed it down," Crippen said.
Simmons said the Phillips Lake fire is not a unique event in this early spring.
"We've already assisted rural fire departments on several fires where similar things happened," Simmons said. "People need to be cognizant that's it's dry out there."
This was the seventh-driest March in Baker City since World War II.
The monthly precipitation total of .31 of an inch was well below the average of .82.
April, as you might have noticed Thursday evening when a series of convective showers doused the area, has had a rather more moist beginning.
The recent desiccated conditions are not without benefits, though.
Crippen said Forest Service crews have had success with prescribed fires, burning about 3,000 acres over the past week.
Fire managers light prescribed fires when fuels are dry enough that flames will spread, but not so dry that the blaze is likely to get out of control. Officials sometimes call this the "burning window."
As an indication of how early that window opened this year, Crippen said crews conducted a prescribed burn on Wednesday near Stices Gulch, a rural subdivision about 12 miles south of Baker City near the Dooley Mountain Highway.
The fire, combined with tree-cutting and brush piling, is intended to reduce the risk of summer wildfires and better protect homes and other private property that borders national forest land.
Last year, fire crews tried to set prescribed fires in the area in late May, but the ground was too damp, Crippen said.
This year, almost two months earlier, burning conditions were nearly ideal.
In fact, the larger fuels - stumps and big logs and the like - which tend to hold moisture longer and burn less readily, actually were consumed along with the pine needles and dry grasses, said Steve Hawkins, who works for the Burnt-Powder Fire Zone.
"Those larger, heavier fuels are drier than in the past couple of years," Hawkins said. "That's a good indicator of how dry things are."
It's also a potential foreshadowing of how severe the fire risk could become this summer.
Those heavy fuels can pose major problems for firefighters during the summer, because they produce a lot of heat and make it difficult for crews to get close, Hawkins said.
Nonetheless, the current conditions constitute only a chapter in the story of the 2013 fire season - and an early chapter at that.
The weather for the rest of the spring will tell the full tale.
"Rain in May and June can certainly make a big difference in our fire season," Crippen said.
And those are, statistically speaking, the two wettest months in Northeastern Oregon.
FIREFIGHTER PRACTICE SET FOR APRIL 13
By Chris Collins
Baker City residents shouldn't panic when they see fire trucks from a variety of agencies traveling throughout the city Saturday, April 13.
If all goes as planned, those driving the trucks will be traveling to scenarios designed for a special event and not working to put out real fires.
Five different scenarios will be set up to test their firefighting competency during the Ninth-Annual Baker County Fire Service Task Performance Exercise.
"This is not a training. It is task performance to hone skills for the spring fire season" said Gary Timm, deputy director of Baker County Emergency Management.
Timm also is the agency's Fire Division manager.
Firefighters have been going through some refresher training to prepare for the event, Timm said.
Businesses throughout the community have contributed to help make the event a success, he said.
In addition to allowing firefighters to practice their skills to better prepare them for responding to a variety of emergencies, the event also is designed to bring attention to the need for new volunteers.
Those interested in becoming volunteer firefighters should contact their nearest fire agency, Timm said.
This year's event will include four stations involving structural emergencies and one that will focus on an urban-wildland interface emergency. At that station firefighters will work in cooperation with U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Forestry, Timm said.
Firefighters expected to participate include those from Baker Rural, Baker City, Powder River Rural, Haines, Eagle Valley and Sumpter. The location of each station where the scenario is set up is kept secret from those participating in the event.
"They will have to find the address, find out what the emergency is and mitigate it," Timm said.
The event is not timed. Each team will be evaluated on Firefighter I skills ranging from radio communications to scene size-up, apparatus operation and how well they work with equipment such as ladders, hydrants and hoses.
Scoring will be based on the teams' demonstration of safety, teamwork, communication and appropriate completion of tasks as they work through the realistic scenarios, Timm said.
There will be a debriefing after the teams have completed each station.
"I am so proud of this event," Timm said. "These are volunteers who volunteer their time on a Saturday to get better at what they do for free."